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Is multiculturalism bad for women in Canada?

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Photo: flickr/shioshvili

On Thursday March 6, Torontonians were treated to two doses of Irshad Manji: a CBC Metro Morning interview to start the day, and the 2014 Bluma Lecture at the Toronto Public Library to end it. Both purported to address the question "is multiculturalism bad for women?" Unsurprisingly, the self-styled "Muslim refusenik" answered "yes!" -- a response Manji backed up with her trademark farrago of inanities, inaccuracies and inflations.

Revelling in her position as a native informant, Manji claimed her identity as a "Brown chick" permits her to say things "white guys or white women" would be branded as racist for articulating. (The prevalence of negative portrayals of racialized minorities in mainstream Canadian media suggests that non-Brown Canadians actually feel quite capable of castigating marginalized groups. Manji functions more as a Brown fig-leaf for prejudice than a brave flag-bearer of critique.)

Such supposed un-utterables include Manji's denunciation of multiculturalism -- a policy she insisted prevents interrogation of misogynistic cultural practices, endangering women's lives and well-being.   

Manji provided scant evidence that multiculturalism is imperilling women's rights in Canada. She relied primarily on the murder of Aqsa Parvez (as well as the Shafia murders in the CBC interview), whom she represented as killed by an overdose of Canadian multicultural tolerance. This despite the facts that the guilty parties in both cases were duly sentenced to life imprisonment, and no one argued that their cultural backgrounds entitled them to leniency. On the contrary -- the labelling of the murders as culturally motivated "honour killings" inspired greater excoriation of the perpetrators, not less.

(Also contra Manji: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not subjugate women's rights to multiculturalism, and the Bouchard-Taylor Commission report on reasonable accommodation did not omit the question of gender equality.)

Given Manji's habit of substantiating sweeping claims with nothing more than one or two personal anecdotes, her low standard of proof is hardly unexpected. But such threadbare reasoning is not the mark of a serious, responsible thinker.

As Law Professor Leti Volpp has observed, the simplistic "feminism versus multiculturalism" frame is unsound. The fixation with holding certain cultures culpable for gendered violence and oppression ignores the various extra-cultural forces (economic, social, psychological) involved in producing such violence. It also diverts scrutiny of mainstream patriarchal structures in society.

Indeed, reflexively "blaming culture for bad behaviour" fails to explain or address the high rates of violence against women in Canada -- a phenomenon manifestly not limited to any particular cultural or ethnic community.

For instance: In 2011, 76 women were killed by an intimate partner; this averages one femicide every five days. Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16 -- and only around ten per cent of all sexual assaults are ever reported to police. On any given night, 3300 women (and 3000 children) are forced to sleep in emergency shelters to escape domestic violence. And as of 2010, there were 582 known cases of murdered or missing Indigenous women in Canada.

These alarming statistics indicate that the danger for women -- all women -- in Canada is endemic patriarchy, not excessive multiculturalism. But since acknowledgement of such facts would disrupt Manji's virtually uncritical panegyric of "the West as against (if not rescuing) the benighted Rest," she blithely ignores them.

This blend of superciliousness and shoddiness is classic Irshad Manji.

Reviewing Manji's break-out book The Trouble With Islam Today, Professor Justin Podur dismissed it as "a multi-faceted fraud" replete with "factual errors, biases, manipulations, [and] distortions." "Reading her book," Podur remarked, "it becomes clear that it is not the work of a self-critical individual trying to hold the Muslim community accountable, but a self-congratulatory Westerner, cheering for powerful states and whitewashing the crimes of her 'family' [ie 'the West']."  Similarly, Professor Leila Lalami described The Trouble With Islam Today as "a narrow polemic, selectively citing events and anecdotes that fit one paradigm only: Muslim savagery, which of course is contrasted with Western enlightenment."

Yale Professor Zareena Grewal took Manji to task for "parrot[ing] a long string of stereotypes and historically baseless myths about Islam, from the idea that Islam was 'spread by the sword' to the classic and widely discredited Orientalist narrative of 12th-century Muslim scholars closing the doors to reason (ijtihad), a crude distortion of the history of Islamic law." "The trouble with native neo-Orientalists such as Manji," wrote Grewal, "is the pervasiveness of their ideas. I have to explain again and again that their ('native') explanations are different from my ('native') explanations because mine are based not on the colour of my skin or my individual experience in Sunday school but on years of research, on the disciplined study of history and culture."

Manji not only largely fails to credit the many Muslim scholars and activists working for justice, equality and pluralism within the tradition (such as Kecia Ali, Farid Esack, Scott Kugle, Azizah al-Hibri, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Ebrahim Moosa, Musawah, Omid Safi, Laury Silvers, Amina Wadud, and countless others), but she makes the task more difficult: by reinforcing popular but inaccurate generalizations about Islam and Muslims, and by promoting herself as the religion's primary agent of reform.

As a representative of the Safra Project (devoted to working with lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women) told Manji during her appearance last year on Al Jazeera's Head to Head: "A lot of the work you're doing has actually detrimentally affected our work [because it] generalizes and essentializes ... when you say more people need to speak up, we don't get a platform. The reason you get a platform is because what you say continues to support the racialization of Muslims."

But Manji forges on, bravely undeterred by her shortcomings in the knowledge department (after all, she does have the weighty mantle of NYU "Professor of Moral Courage" to uphold -- a panjandrum title if ever there was one. One would have thought the combination of chutzpah with ignorance is more liability than asset.) Happily for Manji, her demonstrated lack of expertise has proved no barrier to her continued treatment as an "expert" commentator on everything to do with Islam and Muslims -- from Qur'anic interpretation to Middle East politics to Canadian multiculturalism.

It seems the only qualification Manji needs is her membership in the exclusive club of so-called "good Muslims": that rarefied group of Muslims who "berate other Muslims for their cultural backwardness and ...  acquiesce to American imperial interests, vociferously defend these, and know their proper place as supplicants to the west" (to use the words of Professor Sunera Thobani).

And as the case of Irshad Manji demonstrates, the exaltation of professional "good Muslim" pundits inevitably produces bad analysis.

Azeezah Kanji is a recent graduate of University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, and Programming Coordinator at Noor Cultural Centre. 

Photo: flickr/shioshvili

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